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Our Next Dystopia Is the Suburbs

As American cities boom, their suburbs crumble.
May 25, 2013, 3:00pm
Image: Flickr

Everybody knows that dystopias are always cities—Metropolis, 1984, Brazil; city, city, city. Pretty much on down the line, our speculative fiction imagines human on top of miserable human, toiling away in the soot and factory smoke, packed in like sardines in grey hopeless boxes. Those early dystopias, like Fritz Lang's prototype, were critiques of industrial capitalism; they feared the gears of progress would crush the poor, pollute the world, and elevate just the rich.

Later iterations, like Orwell's Airstrip One, imagined bureaucracy run amok in a decaying city. Blade Runner's Los Angeles was dark and hacked and home to rampant danger in the neon mists. Soylent Green had the cities so packed we were literally eating corpse-food to survive.


Note the common themes, and you've got the most enduring conception of the dystopia today: a crumbling, threatening, and overpopulated metropolis. Certainly some of these sinister crime factories imagined in the latter half of the century corresponded with white flight here in the U.S.—the middle class building highways and moving on out to Levittown. That was echoed in the films, too—escape was often symbolized by a bucolic homestead, like it was in Brazil.

But it looks like we're going to have to re-imagine that dystopia starting about now—and there are some signs that we already are. But first, the facts. A new report from the Brookings Institute, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, reveals that the poverty rate is growing twice as fast in the suburbs as it is in cities. The specter of dystopia is no longer a polluted city—its a shabby American suburb.

There are, as the Washington Post's Brad Plumer notes, multiple reasons for this—there are still more people moving to suburbs than cities in the United States, for starters, and as the recession hit, more of them were becoming poorer. But beyond that, there are plenty of reasons the suburbanites are now worse off than city dwellers: manufacturing moved out of the cities long ago, and now the sector is dying, stranding folks who moved out to the suburbs along with their jobs.

The cost of buying a house is also plummeting in the suburbs, possibly for the same reason, which means poorer families are moving out to the burbs. Now, obviously, a lower cost of living should be a good thing. But there's a big problem lurking in the leafy, well-organized shadows here: transportation.

Transportation is a lot more expensive in the suburbs than it is in cities. People need to cover greater distances, public transportation is a lot more difficult to manage, and it's all very reliant on cars. If you don't own a car in the suburbs, you're screwed. And if you do, you're extremely vulnerable to shocks in gas prices—and that's why some analysts and urban planners speculated long years ago that suburbs are becoming the next slums. Gas prices have been rising steadily over the last decade, and they'll continue to do so as black gold continues to grow scarcer and more valuable. Those who can't afford hybrids or electric cars will bear the brunt of the pain—the new suburban poor.

Meanwhile, the affluent of the current generation are flocking to cities, and they're taking their tax revenues with them. If this trend holds, then there's likely to be less funding available for suburban mass transit, infrastructure repair, and aid to the suburban poor. And right now, it just so happens, America's infrastructure is crumbling. We just lost yet another bridge in Washington State; it was just one of innumerable transit structures labeled "functionally obsolete" and in need of dire repairs. Yet Congress can't pass a transportation bill that would provide the revenue to make the repairs, and Republicans have repeatedly blocked Obama's efforts to begin a highways-focused jobs bill.

So no help's coming. The infrastructure around the suburbs is deteriorating, poverty is rising within them, and the rich are cloistering themselves in pleasant, walkable cities. It's almost the inverse of the classic dystopia, really. To find an analog, you kind of have to get weird—Zardoz, maybe, where the rich flit about in an insulated utopia, while the teeming masses are reduced to barbarism—or look to the future. The upcoming sci-fi flick Elysium highlights this disparity: all of Earth is a dystopia, and the rich live on a cloistered high tech space city in orbit.

Our zombie fiction echoes this sentiment, too—the suburbs are wastelands in The Walking Dead, but pockets in the cities, and other dense communities like prisons, manage to survive. Disaster is everywhere, except perhaps, just maybe, where we stick together closest.

Image: Metropolis